Can the U.S. Control Iran’s Militias in the Fight for Fallujah?

Washington wants Shiite fighters to stay out of the city, but Tehran has other plans.

Shiite fighters from the Popular Mobilisation units hold an Islamic State (IS) group upside down in the village of al-Azraqiyah as they advance towards the centre of Saqlawiyah, north west of Fallujah, on June 4, 2016, during an operation to regain territory from the jihadist group.
Iraqi pro-government forces, made up of fighters from the army, the police and from the Hashed al-Shaabi, gained new ground from the Islamic State group in a key area west of the jihadist bastion of Fallujah, security sources said. / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE        (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)
Shiite fighters from the Popular Mobilisation units hold an Islamic State (IS) group upside down in the village of al-Azraqiyah as they advance towards the centre of Saqlawiyah, north west of Fallujah, on June 4, 2016, during an operation to regain territory from the jihadist group. Iraqi pro-government forces, made up of fighters from the army, the police and from the Hashed al-Shaabi, gained new ground from the Islamic State group in a key area west of the jihadist bastion of Fallujah, security sources said. / AFP / AHMAD AL-RUBAYE (Photo credit should read AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images)

American officials call them the “Tikrit rules” — an informal agreement that Iranian-backed Shiite militias won’t enter Sunni cities reclaimed from the Islamic State for fear of sparking new sectarian tensions there.

But the rules are now facing a serious test in Fallujah, where Iraqi forces — backed by an array of armed Shiite groups — are gearing up to try to reconquer the city from the Islamic State.

The situation in Fallujah bears some resemblance to a crisis that erupted last year in Tikrit, where Shiite fighters backed by Iran launched an offensive to take back the Sunni town north of Baghdad without consulting with Iraqi Army leaders. The operation was essentially an end run around the Iraqi Defense Ministry and their U.S. military advisors, who were blindsided by the news.

The offensive, however, soon became bogged down, and the Iraqi government asked for American air power to break the stalemate on the battlefield. But U.S. officials and commanders balked. They told the Baghdad government that there would be no airstrikes from American warplanes or surveillance aircraft flying overhead unless the Shiite militias in the so-called Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) pulled back, so the Iraqi Defense Ministry took full command of the operation, and U.S.-trained Iraqi Army units led the attack into the city.

“We said we can only do it if the Iranian-backed PMF stay out of the city,” a senior U.S. administration official told Foreign Policy.

In Fallujah, where thousands of Shiite militiamen are deployed on the northern approaches to the city, the United States is laying down conditions like those in Tikrit in 2015, said the senior official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“It’s a fairly similar rule set that’s being applied here,” the official said.

The problem is that the Shiite militias aren’t abiding by those rules. Sunnis who managed to escape Fallujah have suffered beatings, disappearances, and even summary executions at the hands of Iranian-backed Shiite militias over the past two weeks, according to “credible” accounts cited by Human Rights Watch in a report published Thursday.

Bruno Geddo, the chief of the U.N. refugee agency’s mission in Iraq, said the behavior of the militias was “completely unacceptable.”

The allegations of abuses were “corroborated by several sources,” Geddo told FP. “From reports we have received, the torture has been perpetuated by the militias.”

The abuses raise serious security and humanitarian concerns because Shiite abuses could lead fearful Sunnis to respond in kind and potentially turn to the Islamic State or other armed groups for protection.

The fears are playing out on both sides of the sectarian divide, and recent Islamic State suicide bombings in Baghdad in Shiite neighborhoods have inflicted a rising death toll. The attacks prompted demands for the Iraqi government to focus its attention on securing Fallujah, only 40 miles west of the capital and long a staging ground for assaults on Baghdad by Sunni extremists.

The accounts of persecution near Fallujah have raised alarm bells in Washington, where military and civilian officials have long worried about the role of the militias and their potential to foment sectarian bloodshed.

And it’s not clear that U.S. leverage with the Iraqi government — including the threat of withdrawing American air power — will be enough to restrain the most powerful Shiite militias, who answer to their Iranian patrons.

The Obama administration, mindful of the reports of persecution against Sunnis, has made clear to the Iraqi government that any abuses are unacceptable, officials said. But they have been encouraged so far by Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s condemnation of the abuses and public vows to punish those responsible.

“To the degree that these allegations prove true, it will be important for Abadi to demonstrate not only in words but in deeds, by arresting people and holding them accountable,” the same senior official said.

Although Washington is worried by reports of Shiite militias mistreating Sunnis, the administration was not threatening to hold back U.S. air power in Fallujah, partly because Abadi’s government has promised that the Iraqi Army will spearhead the attack on the city and not the militias, the official said.

When asked if Washington was seriously considering withholding air support, the official said, “We’re not anywhere near that point.”

The official added: “We could not be more focused in emphasizing how important this is and also making it clear the decision … will shape our ability to help the campaign.”

The U.S.-led air campaign around Fallujah has intensified in recent days, but officials insisted those bombing raids have backed up Iraqi Army operations in the south and not Shiite militias in the northern suburbs. Over the past week, American warplanes have launched more than 30 airstrikes around Fallujah, said Army Col. Chris Garver, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Baghdad.

The strikes ramped up significantly on Wednesday, with coalition aircraft destroying 23 Islamic State fighting positions, a supply cache, and other targets in the city, according to U.S. Central Command statistics.

The Shiite militias and their Iranian sponsors do not want a repeat of the Tikrit episode, in which the PMF was sidelined and U.S. air power had a starring role, said Matthew McInnis, a former intelligence analyst and now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

“It was embarrassing for them,” he said.

Since the Tikrit operation, the militias have undergone more training and received new arms, including Russian antitank weapons. “The Iranians have spent a significant amount of time improving their capabilities,” McInnis said. 

Underscoring the priority Tehran has attached to the Fallujah operation, Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force, visited the militia fighters near Fallujah at the end of last month.

Iran has historically relied on three militias to exercise influence in Iraq. The groups all predate the threat of the Islamic State, and each of them publicly supports Iran’s supreme leader, as well as its revolutionary ideology. And at least two of the groups have been linked to deadly attacks on American troops during the 2003 to 2011 U.S. occupation.

The Badr Organization, the biggest of these militias, is also the oldest. Formed in 1982 in Tehran, it originally served as an ideologically fervent auxiliary force to Iran during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War. Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of Badr, speaks fluent Farsi, carries an Iranian passport, and has an Iranian wife. He also commands a force of some 20,000 Iraqi men and leads most of the PMF’s operations.

The second largest, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or League of the Righteous, was formed by Iran in 2006 to attack U.S. troops occupying Iraq. Like Badr, it pledges loyalty to Iran’s doctrine of vesting political power in the clergy. The group has recruited heavily during the fight against the Islamic State, bumping its numbers up to around 10,000 to 15,000, according to Phillip Smyth, a researcher of Shiite militias at the University of Maryland. It was also responsible for one of the most notorious attacks on American troops during the long war: a well-choreographed 2007 strike on a U.S. base near the city of Karbala that resulted in five American deaths.

The third group, Kataib Hezbollah, is one of the most sophisticated militias in Iraq, with its core members drawn from staunchly pro-Tehran elements in Badr. The group also was tied to the deaths of U.S. troops in Iraq and was known for posting videos of attacks on American and Iraqi forces to the internet. Though smaller than the other two — it claims to have around 10,000 men — Kataib Hezbollah enjoys special access to Iranian weapons and training. Its founder, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis, acts as Suleimani’s right-hand man in Iraq and is the deputy chief of the PMF. He arranges logistics, plans operations, and many fighters see him as the true leader of the movement.

Two of these Iranian-supported militias — the Badr brigades and the Kataib Hezbollah fighters — were specifically cited by witnesses and local officials in Anbar province in a report published Thursday by Human Rights Watch that recounted severe beatings and atrocities against Sunnis who fled Fallujah. The group said it had received “credible allegations of summary executions, beatings of unarmed men, enforced disappearances, and mutilation of corpses” by militias and federal police over a two-week period since May 23.

Despite the accounts of persecution by militias, the Iraqi government has called on the residents of Fallujah to flee before its forces enter the city.

At last count, more than 16,000 people have fled Fallujah since May 3, including families using tires and refrigerators to make their way across the Euphrates River, according to Geddo. Those that remain in the Islamic State-controlled city are “starving, unable to find food,” and are grinding stale dates to make flour, he said.

The most prominent Shiite cleric in Iraq, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has called for restraint in Fallujah. His representative, Abdul Mahdi al-Karbalai, recently appealed for calm, calling for security forces to protect civilians and not to act in a “treacherous” manner.

Some militia leaders reportedly have also spoken out against mistreatment of Sunnis. But a member of Kataib Hezbollah, one of the proxy militias, provided potential justification for sectarian retaliation against Sunni civilians. On Feb. 1, he said “80 percent” of Fallujah’s residents were allied with the Islamic State.

The leaders of the Iranian-backed militias mostly recognize that they cannot recapture Fallujah on their own and do not relish the idea of effectively occupying a Sunni city once Islamic State militants are pushed out, analysts said.

But analysts also say the militias want to have a key role in the offensive, stake out a permanent presence on key routes leading to Baghdad, and, more importantly, to tout the eventual liberation of Fallujah in their propaganda.

“No matter how the operation plays out, they will try to take credit for everything,” said Patrick Martin, a research analyst on Iraq at the Institute for the Study of War.

After launching the offensive on May 23, Iraqi forces are knocking on the doors of Fallujah from several directions, even if they haven’t been able to penetrate deeply into the city. Brigades from the 14th Iraqi Army division have been clearing parts of the northern edges of the city, while to the south, brigades from the 1st, 17th, and 8th Iraqi divisions are still clearing roads of bombs and other obstacles near the Euphrates River.

The troops are joined there by Sunni “Anbar tribal fighters [who] have been back-clearing bypassed areas to clear out pockets” of Islamic State fighters, Garver told reporters on Wednesday.

The fighting in the south “has been significant,” the U.S.-led coalition spokesman said, and Islamic State fighters are using “extensive tunnels, berms, obstacles, and IEDs used as minefields,” much like in the fight for Ramadi in December.

Iraq’s elite counterterrorism force — which played a crucial role in the battles for Ramadi, Baiji, and Tikrit last year — is also operating south of Fallujah and will be called on to deliver the main blow against Islamic State fighters in the city. The force, known as the counterterrorism service or CTS, was created and trained by U.S. military advisors and reportedly harbors some distrust of the Iranian-backed militias.

Progress has been slow. But the Baghdad government this week hailed the advance of Iraqi counterterrorism troops on the southern outskirts of the city, to a street in Fallujah’s Shuhada neighborhood.

FP staff writer Paul McLeary contributed to this article.

Photo credit: AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

Henry Johnson is a fellow at Foreign Policy. He graduated from Claremont McKenna College with a degree in history and previously wrote for LobeLog. Twitter: @HenryJohnsoon

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